Contemplations From National Sawdust

S1 E5 | FULL EPISODE

Leading Voices

Explore the contemporary music giants that are a part of National Sawdust. Featuring interviews and music from Tania León, George Crumb, Terry Riley and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

AIRED: July 25, 2021 | 1:25:25
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TRANSCRIPT

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Prestini: Welcome to "Contemplations."

My name is Paola Prestini, and I'll be your guide

through "Leading Voices."

It has been one of my greatest joys

to see leading voices from all walks of life

and different styles grace our stage,

from Joan Tower and Tania León

to Terry Riley, Ryuichi Sakamoto,

Jeanine Tesori, and Tazewell Thompson,

Carrie Mae Weems, Renée Fleming,

and the great Jessye Norman.

One of my hopes with Sawdust

was to portray through great curation

that all this music exists within the commonalities

of deep conceptual thinking, craft, and flow.

Why apply false hierarchies or limit greatness to one thing?

Why not shine light on the commonalities,

rather than the differences?

And who do we make up for the lost art and the lost time?

Let's explore these thoughts together.

I have composers Tania León and Joan Tower,

and the clarinetist, curator, and record producer

Chris Grymes.

And I want to ask you a few questions.

I'm gonna start with Joan and Tania.

You're both considered to be some of the most brilliant,

successful living composers of our time.

What does success mean to you now,

looking back at your lengthy and accomplished careers?

I think it means nourishment, actually,

because we work alone, like a lot of artists,

and we work on the page

and we hope that that page will go somewhere

and be picked up by players who like what they are reading,

then they like it enough to play it again,

and then the audience might like it, too.

It's like three listeners --

first me, then the player, then the audience.

And that kind of nourishment is incredibly important to me.

That's beautiful, and that's a lifelong feeling, right?

'Cause each piece brings a different type of nourishment.

Tania, what about you?

It's almost similar.

In fact, I usually get very surprised

when I --

the music that I write elicits any reaction

from audiences,

whether it's children up to, you know, grown-ups.

Mm-hmm.

León: And it's a miracle.

And then, for me, it's sort of like an exposure

to my cultural history, and it's a dialogue

between the audience and me through the sounds.

-Right, and we have a natural dialogue here

with a performer, right, in Chris Grymes.

And, Chris, you represent to me very much what it means

to be a 21st-century artist.

You are someone who performs, but you curate, you produce.

And you produced the concert

that actually brought Joan and Tania to our space.

Talk a little bit about what it meant to you to have them

here in a space that's also your musical home, I think,

but also what it means to be a multifaceted performer.

Touching on what Joan said, Joan wrote a piece in 1981

that ended up touching me around 1990,

called "Wings" for solo clarinet.

And I really spent a lot of time on it,

and it was like sort of my piece that I carried around with me

as my signature for a long time.

And being able to meet her on that level

of her writing something

that she hoped would touch a performer

and being a performer who was actually touched by the work.

I was fortunate to ask Joan

to make a concert for her birthday,

and she immediately said,

"I want to share this concert with my friends."

Prestini: I love that.

And it really was more a statement about Tania and Joan

and the other composers

about how much the performers wanted to be a part of that

and how much everybody wanted to be a part of celebrating

these women and their work and their influence.

We have two pieces, "Wild Summer" and "Ethos."

Can you tell us a little bit about

the pieces we're about to hear?

"Wild Summer" is a short piece as part of a series

that Jasper commissioned four composers to write

for each season, and I picked summer.

This is my sixth quartet that I've written,

and I love Jasper because they are an exploratory

group of people who commission composers, living composers.

So, that's great.

Tania?

"Ethos" was dedicated and actually was a commission

to celebrate the life of Isaiah Sheffer, and --

founder of Symphony Space.

Okay.

And it was about him.

You know, I thought -- I met him.

He gave me opportunities there,

you know, when I was with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

And understanding what he was trying to do

and his ethos in life,

that is actually what motivated me to do the piece.

And it is a piano quintet

for the Cassatt Quartet and Ursula Oppens.

And besides that, you know, working with Ursula --

I had been working with Ursula since 1988,

so that was another thing that had to do with the ethos

between the two of us.

There are themes of curiosity, perseverance,

being kind, being yourself.

It's one of my big hopes that,

one day, people will open up books,

a long time from now, 'cause I want you both around forever,

and people are gonna be studying these works and your life

and all you've done.

It's very exciting.

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This is so genuine, this panel, actually.

Well, I am so sorry for getting emotional.

Tower: Aww, you're so... [ Laughs ]

Prestini: But it's just great.

Oh, my God, Paola, that's sweet.

León: I mean, we are part of the same family.

Prestini: That's right. León: You know?

I mean, and you have actually created a stage

which is inclusive. Tower: Mm-hmm.

León: I mean, it's music of all walks of life,

I mean, of all persuasions, of all type of motivations,

all cultural inputs, you know?

And that also encourages audiences to find themselves.

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[ Applause ]

Prestini: I think about when I was at Juilliard

studying composition, and the only woman I studied

was Hildegard von Bingen.

So, I wanted to add masters

because, to me, this is what's so great about living today,

is that we finally, you know, are recognizing

the masters that are around us.

So, I have just a simple question, which is,

should we even be using that term "masters"?

Is it relevant today?

Well, first of all, that's an incredible honor.

I didn't think of ever myself as a master of anything.

Composing is so hard, you know? [ Laughs ]

Right, something you could master your whole life, but...

[ Laughing ] That's right.

I would say, easily, the two of you are masters, yeah.

One thing that I would like to add is that...

speaking about my friend and colleague Joan,

and she was a master that I looked up

in my younger years.

I mean, she became my mentor.

You're only two years younger than I am, though.

[ Laughter ]

Prestini: Doesn't matter. [ Laughs ]

The thing that I think about

when you talk about this idea of masters

is that I see myself as a musician and a clarinetist

on a long continuum of musicians

playing music that composers have written

either for them or for people like them,

and I definitely see Tania and Joan in this continuum,

you know, of thousands of years

of musicians making beautiful things

with and for each other.

It's the exact same thing a thousand years ago

as it is today, and that's what I think the beauty of it is.

And to be able to sort of be a part of making something

that's alive, it's my pleasure, it's my honor.

[ Birds chirping ]

When did you start writing, I mean?

Oh, I -- I don't --

What were you playing?

Well, piano. Yeah.

I played piano about a year before I had many lessons.

How old were you when you..?

Well, I don't know.

My mother says probably I was about 10

when I was writing little pieces.

But my father had a collection of Eulenburg scores.

The first score I ever looked at

was the Egmont Overture of Beethoven.

And I was just -- I was just amazed, you know,

that all that sound was represented on the page.

And at the same time, this is --

a big Bartók explosion was happening about that time.

Would you consider Bartók to be your sort of first

real big influence?

The first important influence, yeah.

Yeah. Mm-hmm.

And there are still things in my music

that I can see derive directly out of Bartók --

kind of a fascination with the tritone,

constructing tonal relationships built on the tritone.

Yep.

So, here's my one-car studio.

I can use these things for drawing,

you know, curved things.

Slurs and things? Ties?

Ties and phrase marks.

And, see, here's some long ones. [ Laughs ]

You would have used a compass throughout all of this.

So, do you draw the five -- the staff lines yourself, too?

Oh, everything. I draw all the staff lines.

You know -- With all of the lines?

Yeah, but set at different places,

so as it gets smaller, it has to...

See, here it goes down to that.

I don't know how I did that.

[ Both laugh ]

I don't think I could do that again.

Yeah, I printed -- had this Lorca text printed here, yeah.

And you don't have to look hard for to find the lunae in Lorca.

He was, I think...

I think he was deeply touched

by anything that had to do with the moon, you know.

I don't think the sun is mentioned

as much as the moon for Lorca.

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I remember you talking about

composing "Night of the Four Moons"

and you kind of used it as an exercise

to write a piece more quickly

because you felt that you took too long to write pieces.

Do you remember?

I do remember that, and I was trying to write it

in a, uh... certain limited time.

Why? I wonder what the connection was.

The Apollo 11 mission.

That -- That was it, yeah.

I wanted to write it during the time of the Apollo 11.

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Don't happen very often, right,

that somebody walks on the moon.

So it seemed to signal a new age

and that we're bursting out of our narrow confines

on the planet here

and trying to...

It opens up something, I guess, yeah.

[ Singing in Spanish ]

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What do you think that comes from,

your love of wide-open spaces?

I don't know. I think a lot of it is --

is not thought-out, it's just something you do.

Don't you think that happens with a lot of composers?

They have their image of a certain sound they want

and they find ways to kind of get that sound, you know.

And it's maybe even intensified since the 20th century.

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[ Applause ]

Thank you.

This evening actually came about

because I ran into Jeanine

at a reception after someone's opera. Mm-hmm.

And I said, "What are you working on?"

And she said, "This opera 'Blue,'"

and mentioned James Baldwin Ta-Nehisi Coates,

and I was like, "Tell me more."

So, how did that come to be, and what is this opera

that you are working on with Tazewell Thompson?

Tazewell Thompson, who is not here...

Usually, Tazewell does this

because it's very -- you know, it's not my preference

to be here speaking for the opera,

because it's really Tazewell's, a lot of his story.

He's a Black queer librettist and author and director.

The first act is really about this family

and these three women, and the one woman is pregnant,

and her girlfriends come to visit her

and she's about to give birth.

And I decided they go to Michigan -- go Blue.

I don't know why, but that's my decision.

She got her PhD. I had this whole backstory.

And so, they come and they visit her

and they're like, "What? Why did you call us?"

And then they find out that she's having a boy,

and the air goes out of the scene.

And then the whole, the rest of the scene

is about them coming back.

And then she says, "I'm married to a cop."

So the air goes out again. So, it's all of these things.

So, this first song, this aria,

is called "Go Figure,"

and it's this woman describing --

this woman who is this PhD and she has --

you know, she's with an officer,

and their surprise at that and her description

of what that love means to her.

Great. Well, we'll bring out Briana Hunter.

[ Applause ]

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♪ I love him

♪ Mm, mm-mm, mmmmm

♪ Mm-mmmmmm

♪ He seems to love me more than I love him ♪

♪ And that's saying something

♪ I looked at him, he looked at me ♪

♪ I heard him say, he said to me ♪

♪ "It's you I want, I must have you" ♪

♪ Go figure

♪ Not a clue of who I am or what I'm not ♪

♪ I didn't care, he said to me I'm in his hair ♪

♪ Go figure

♪ I've been waiting

♪ And watching and wanting and hoping and praying ♪

♪ That someone would wait and want to watch over me ♪

♪ And say, "You, come follow me" ♪

♪ You, you, you

♪ Ahhhhhh ah-ah-ahhhh

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♪ Ahhhhhh ah-ah-ahhhh

♪ This joy within

♪ But other men go to work

♪ Mine goes to war

♪ I never know if he'll be coming through that door ♪

♪ At the end of the day

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♪ How will it end?

♪ How did it start?

♪ How can it be he just wants me? ♪

♪ Where I am, he wants to be

♪ Go figuuuuuuuuuure

♪ Go figuuuuuuuuuure

[ Applause ]

Perhaps you remember that time we went to see

"Howl's Moving Castle" on the Upper West Side.

You were almost five years old.

The theater was crowded, and when we came out,

we rode a set of escalators down to the ground floor.

As we came off, you were moving at the dawdling speed

of a small child.

A white woman pushed you and said, "Come on!"

Many things now happened at once.

There was the reaction of any parent

when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child.

And there was my own insecurity

in my ability to protect your Black body.

And more --

there was my sense that this woman was pulling rank.

I knew, for instance, that she would not have pushed

a Black child out on my part of Flatbush,

because she would be afraid there

and would sense, if not know,

that there would be a penalty for such an action.

But I was not out on my part of Flatbush.

And I was not in West Baltimore.

And I was far from The Mecca.

I forgot all of that.

I was only aware that someone had invoked their right

over the body of my son.

I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot

with all of the moment and all of my history.

She shrunk back, shocked.

A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense.

I experienced this as his attempt

to rescue the damsel from the beast.

He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son.

And he was now supported by other white people

in the assembling crowd.

The man came closer. He grew louder.

I pushed him away.

He said, "I could have you arrested!"

I did not care.

I told him this,

and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat.

This desire was only controllable

because I remembered someone standing off to the side there,

bearing witness to more fury

than he had ever seen from me --

you.

I came home shook.

It was a mix of shame for having gone back

to the law of the streets

mixed with rage --

"I could have you arrested!"

Which is to say, "I could take your body."

I have told this story many times, not out of bravado,

but out of a need for absolution.

I have never been a violent person.

Even when I was young and adopted the rules of the street,

anyone who knew me knew it was a bad fit.

I've never felt the pride that is supposed to come

with righteous self-defense and justified violence.

Whenever it was me on top of someone,

whatever my rage in the moment, afterward I always felt sick

at having been lowered to the crudest form of communication.

Malcolm made sense to me not out of a love of violence,

but because nothing in my life prepared me to understand

tear gas as deliverance,

as those Black History Month martyrs

of the Civil Rights Movement did.

But more than any shame I feel about my own actual violence,

my greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you

I was, in fact, endangering you.

"I could have you arrested," he said.

Which is to say, "One of your son's earliest memories will be

watching the men who sodomized Abner Louima

and choked Anthony Baez

cuff, club, tase, and break you."

I had forgotten the rules.

An error is dangerous on the Upper West Side of Manhattan

as on the Westside of Baltimore.

One must be without error out here.

Walk in single file. Work quietly.

Pack an extra number 2 pencil.

Make no mistakes.

But you are human and you will make mistakes.

You will misjudge. You will yell.

You will drink too much.

You will hang out with people you shouldn't.

Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson --

not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson.

But the price of error is higher for you

than it is for your countrymen,

and so that America might justify itself,

the story of a Black body's destruction must always begin

with his or her error, real or imagined --

with Eric Garner's anger, with Trayvon Martin's mythical words

"You are going to die tonight",

with Sean Bell's mistake of running with the wrong crowd,

with me standing too close to the small-eyed boy pulling out.

A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story

with the chapter that most advantages itself,

and in America, these precipitating chapters

are almost always rendered as the singular action

of exceptional individuals.

"It only takes one person to make a change,"

you are often told.

This is also a myth.

Perhaps one person can make a change,

but not the kind of change that would raise your body

to equality with your countrymen.

The fact of history is that Black people have not --

probably no people have ever --

liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts.

In every great change in the lives of African Americans

we see the hand of events

that were beyond our individual control,

events that were not unalloyed goods.

You cannot disconnect our emancipation

in the Northern colonies

from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War,

any more than you can disconnect

our emancipation from slavery in the South

from the charnel houses of the Civil War,

any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow

from the genocides of the Second World War.

History is not solely in our hands.

And still you are called to struggle,

not because it assures you victory,

but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.

I am ashamed of how I acted that day,

ashamed of endangering your body.

But I am not ashamed because I am a bad father,

a bad individual, or ill-mannered.

I am ashamed that I made an error,

knowing that our errors always cost us more.

[ Applause ]

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Man: Bravo!

[ Applause ]

This is a work that I think...

Well, first of all, it's by a composer

that has made an entire career

also smashing boundaries.

His name is John Zorn.

I like to call him the godfather

of the downtown experimental music scene.

And this is a work he wrote for me,

I think about seven years ago,

entitled "Babel: The Confusion of Tongues."

And this is a work that I think absolutely pushes the envelope

of cello technique.

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[ Cheers and applause ]

I am catching you, Terry, in Japan,

and it's so nice to see you.

I am thrilled to be with you. I've missed you.

And I'm curious -- just because you're there,

I want to start, really, with where you are.

You've been there during the pandemic,

and I'm very curious, just as a composer,

has your music changed since you've moved there?

I was in the beginnings of a three-month tour,

which was for my 85th birthday tour.

I would've been coming to New York

playing at Central Park -- Central Stage in New York

on my birthday.

And I came to Japan

to do a project on Sado Island.

Everything canceled while I was here.

I came here and got an apartment

and just, you know, settled down to see what would happen.

And over the mon-- You know, and then I got an artist visa

and so I could stay.

And so I've really settled in and been writing.

I think the biggest change in my writing

is, one of the things is I started going back

to paper and pencil.

The pieces I've been writing now are maybe a little simpler

than what I was doing on, you know, devices.

Prestini: That makes a lot of sense.

You know, the idea of moving away from devices

in a moment where we're so engulfed by them.

That makes a lot of sense.

I remember you gave me this album

and it had you singing --

"Remember This, O Mind."

Prestini: Can you talk a little bit about,

you know, that piece, what that piece means,

and then, you know, kind of what that change was,

going from this ensemble where you were singing

to all of a sudden, a full choir.

Piece was part of my Guggenheim project.

I was a Guggenheim Fellow in -- I think it was 1979,

around that time that I did this piece.

And I first wrote it for myself singing with Kronos Quartet.

That was the first version of it.

Much -- A much different version,

a much more scaled-down version.

I mean, that was like, what, '79?

So, over the next 30 years or so, I kept every once in a while

making a different revision on it,

from solo to string quartet

to finally the eight cellos.

There was something about those --

you know, those cellos mirroring the voice

that just created this profound sense of humanity,

which is, you know -- I think when I listen to that piece,

there's something very spiritual about it.

The inspiration for the piece comes from

"The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna,"

which was a book I was really into in the '70s,

and it was...

One of his disciples had gone to meet daily

with this Bengali saint

and recorded, with a photographic memory,

every word he said just perfectly.

You can tell it's just as he said it.

So, it's a beautifully written book

and a very inspirational book.

So, one of the songs in there was a Bengali song

called "Remember This, O Mind."

And I don't ever --

I don't know what the Bengali song sounds like,

so I just decided to set it, you know, in my own way.

That's how it began.

Well, it's one of the great masterpieces,

and I'm so excited that people get to hear

this live performance.

You, of course, are one of the masters of this century,

and I'm curious, you know, just as a composer,

we always think, what does it mean to arrive?

Is there a moment where you feel like you've kind of hit

a masterful stride?

Any of us who really go deeply into music,

it's a very humbling experience.

So, "master" and music almost don't go together in my mind.

[ Laughs ] That's great.

I always feel like it's so many steps

to really realize the ideas as you kind of imagine them.

When you're playing or writing or anything, you --

I always feel I've fallen short of what I wanted to do.

But at some point, you just have to let the work go out of the --

Or, if you're playing, you know, that's it.

It comes out as you play it.

I love it. I think that's --

That makes a lot of sense.

And finally, I guess my question is,

you know, you played in the very --

gosh, in the very first week of opening at National Sawdust.

And then, of course, this performance,

which was amazing, and I'm just curious.

You've also done things with your son, Gyan Riley,

which have been some of my favorite shows.

You've performed with the "Synth Wizard"

Gavilán Rayna Russom.

Are there any moments for you that have, you know,

had significance or have stayed in your heart?

Riley: The weekend that I was there for my birthday.

You had so many great performers there

playing my music beside me.

It was a really a high point.

I mean, it was a really amazing time for me.

And, you know, it was just before Ann died,

and I was so happy that she could come

and experience that weekend with me.

So, it was one of the most special music festivals

I've been to.

And, of course, Sawdust is like being at home, you know?

It's such a welcoming place.

It means so much to me that...

you know, that someone like yourself, who has such a...

I mean, who I just admire with every cell in my body,

has just led his entire life with an open heart.

And I think one hears that in your profound music.

And just thank you for opening your heart to me

and for being part of this retrospective.

It means a lot.

Thank you, Paola.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪ Remember this

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ Remember this

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ Remember this

♪ O mind

♪ Remember this

♪ Remember this

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ O mind ♪ O mind

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody is your own

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Nobody

♪ Is your own

♪ O mind ♪ O mind

♪ O mind ♪ O mind

♪ Is your own

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪ Remember this, remember this, O mind ♪

♪ Remember this, remember this, O mind ♪

♪ Remember this, remember this, O mind ♪

♪ Remember this, remember this, O mind ♪

♪ Remember this

♪ O mind

♪ O mind

♪ Remember this

♪ O mind

♪♪

♪ Vain

♪ Is your wandering

♪ In this world

♪ Oooooooh

♪♪

[ All vocalizing ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪ Trapped in the subtle snare

♪ Of Maya

♪ Trapped in the subtle snare

♪ Of Maya

♪ Trapped in the subtle snare

♪ Trapped in the subtle snare

♪ Of Maya

♪ Do not forget

♪ The Mother's name

♪ Is your own

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